Phil Goff is speed dating journalists.

He wants money. More than that, he wants public buy-in, so when the Auckland Council spends this money ratepayers will be happy about it. 

To do that you first have to paint a grim picture – in this case, of polluted Auckland beaches that have seen swim events cancelled and residents staying dry on hot days. 

When Aucklanders get the message pollution has taken a grip, Goff figures they’ll be ready for a targeted rate to pay for the clean up. 

The reality is, Auckland’s beaches are no more horrible than they were about 10 years ago, and on the Manukau Harbour, they’re better. North Shore locals knew not to go swimming at Milford after heavy rain, city residents to keep away from inner city and western beaches if they smelt bad. The difference now is that thanks to constant testing, modelling and computer algorithms, they can see the warnings instantly on the SafeSwim website. The city can no longer wallow in waters of ignorance.

“The water quality hasn’t suddenly miraculously got worse, it’s simply a reflection of the fact that now we know what’s happening much better and we’re much more transparent,” says Goff.

“When I was a kid all of these beaches around the Manukau were closed and you could smell it at Mt Roskill … this is not new, but it’s no longer acceptable in a 21st century world-class city. What Safe Swim’s done is to focus our minds on the degree to which beaches are deemed not safe to swim, particularly after it rains,” he says.

“We were the first city in New Zealand to have a real time, accurate information on the safety of swimming.

“We’re now getting 280,000 thousand visits (to the website), which is a 20,000 percent increase,” he says. 

Don’t let the zeros fool you, that’s because it’s gone from slightly more than nobody looking at three day old results, to a revamped up-to-date site during the country’s hottest summer. The old site was about five percent accurate, compared to more than 80 percent now. 

But it’s grist to the mill for an addition to the rates bill – without technically breaking Goff’s limited rates-rise election promise. 

Plans to fix it were to be spread over 30 years. “That’s ridiculous. We want to do it a whole lot quicker.” 

This is not business as usual. This is transformational change.

Goff’s charm offensive (should that be harm offensive?) is working – the council’s feedback so far says that of 2816 people who’ve responded to the question, 66 percent support a targeted rate to clean up the beaches. (Another 26 percent are apparently quite comfortable about having shitty beaches,” he says in an undertone. “I’m not meant to say that.”)  

Goff wants to get the work done in 10 years. He sees it as his legacy, for our children and grandchildren. An effort to live up to the 100 percent Pure New Zealand marketing. 

“This is not business as usual. This is transformational change.” 

The council’s looking at spending $7 billion (up from $5.9b) over the next decade. A lot of the extra money is going into new projects on the western isthmus where overflow problems are chronic. There are 60 or 70 sites there that regularly overflow into streams and onto beaches. But the granddaddy of the schemes is the massive, billion-dollar central interceptor pipe which will take the pressure off the city’s ageing infrastructure. 

The central interceptor plan met objections from the Manukau Harbour Protection Society and other groups concerned the Waitemata’s problems were being fixed at the expense of the Manukau, but Goff says a $136m project at the Mangere Wastewater Treatment Plant to be finished this year will vastly expand the plant’s capacity to treat waste water.

“Look, I grew up on the edge of the Manukau and I grew up with a sense of resentment … Robbie (former mayor Sir Dove Myer Robinson) was great at saving the Waitemata but he dumped all his shit in our back yard. So I understand where the Manukau Harbour Protection Society’s coming from. But I’m persuaded that they can cope with that. Do we need to keep on improving? Of course we do. Has Mangere vastly improved its act? You only have to go there … there are no sedimentation ponds, there’s no smell, there are no midges, the water quality is so good that it’s causing (people) to complain that it’s causing seaweed to wash up on the Awhitu Peninsula, which has been put down to the quality of the water. 

“But that’s good … there are success stories here to applaud. And there are things to say for too long we’ve left the overflows onto the beaches for the next generation to fix. No, this is our responsibility. 

“Aucklanders are now much more aware of the problem and therefore much more willing …. not even just willing…. to do something, the public will rightly demand that we do something about the problem.This was a wake up call to say this situation – it’s bad – it’s not worse than it was before – but it’s no longer tolerable.”

So why wasn’t the funding just budgeted for, and added to rates bills, without the need to launch a somewhat bleak public relations campaign? 

Former central government politician Goff says he wanted to make sure the money is not only collected, but ring-fenced for the job. “Treasury hates doing this,” he says. But to get his budget approved in a local government context, he had to really sell it. 

“I persuaded the Governing Body of Council that this was a good way of doing it. People have got a choice. They’ll be able to make submissions around whether they want to pay a regional fuel tax. Most people when asked ‘do you want to pay more for a service’ will say ‘no!’ It’s just the default position. But when you spend an extra 10 or 11 cents at the pump you know that money is only going to be spent improving our transport systems.

“When you pay your targeted rate of $1.30 a week for water quality, you know that money is only going to be spent on doing a whole lot more than what we were going to do. Under the old programme we could have kept it at the old rate increase of 3.5 percent and in 30 years we probably could have got around to cleaning up the beaches. And I’m saying that’s too long. That’s too long for our kids, that’s too long for us, that’s too long for our grandkids. Let’s get in and put some more resource into this and do it more quickly.”

The other breakthrough is getting Watercare and Healthy Waters, two different council organisations doing the same job, working together on the issues. They’ve now agreed on the most effective way to do the clean-up job. 

But Goff says the plan will be hard to put in place without public support. 

“You’re always in a quandary. You always want to keep your rates low and reasonable, But what’s the purpose of being in local government if you can’t transform for the better the community that you’re living in.”

“I’ve been around long enough to know you get nothing for nothing. And if you want something improved, you’ve got to make a contribution.” 

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